The Sacramento Kings at the turn of the millennium were the most terrifying team I had ever seen.
This was back when they had Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie, a tandem so terrifying that I still remember their names a decade later; back when ARCO Arena, raging with the sound of a thousand cowbells, was the loudest stadium in sports; back when the Kings nearly derailed two Laker championship runs by themselves, and probably would have won a ring if it hadn’t been for St. Robert Horry.
Granted, I was young, impressionable and easily terrified back then; five Laker championships later, I find it harder to be impressed by other NBA teams.
Still, though, my memories of the Kings remain the stuff of nightmares. The fear persists. It will not fade away. I don’t even need to imagine the players — I just need to think of the fans.
This is the team that made filling its stadium seem like the easiest thing in the world; the team that sold out 11 seasons in a 13-year span during which they made the playoffs exactly twice. (By comparison, if the Lakers were ever that bad, there would be riots.)
This is the team that still manages respectable attendance even though its owners have had one foot out the door for nearly a decade now. Sacramento is, by general consensus, the best fanbase in basketball.
As with so many other hopes and dreams, the downward spiral of the Sacramento Kings begins with a bold gamble in Las Vegas.
In 2005, the Maloof family — owners of the Sacramento Kings since 1999 and Vegas hoteliers since 1994 — opened the ironically named “Fantasy Tower” at The Sands. The $600 million project — and its massive debts — ran headlong into the Great Recession, nearly bankrupting the entire family.
The Maloofs had made agreements in principle to sell the team to Sacramento-based buyers, but recently they turned around and struck a deal to sell the team outright to a Seattle consortium and now it looks like the NBA is going to get rid of the entire franchise and ship it to Seattle.
My question is, does the team come with a complimentary box of chocolate? Or maybe some wrapping paper? I’m sure that the team can be gifted away; after all, that was exactly what happened when the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City. But is that how you treat this fanbase? This city?
Robert Horry’s three-pointer to beat the Kings in “that” Game 4 in 2002 is probably my favorite basketball moment of all time. I know I should be saying that the Lakers beating the Celtics in the 2010 Finals was the best, and at worst it’s a close number two, but Horry’s moment was just perfect the scene, the mortal enemy and a crowd that was both amped up and charged with the moment (a Lakers playoff crowd is typically a fun one).
Few moments could ever be as perfect — two missed layups by the two best players in the NBA (I still can’t believe this), the ball improbably bouncing to Horry right outside the three-point line, the effortless shot, the crowd erupting, not in the artificial manner in which NBA arenas try to pump up their fans, but as if a direct line of electricity had blasted through our hearts and elevated us to a whole new level of existence. Basketball — and the Kings — taught me that miracles do happen.
Sports teach you joy and love, heartbreak and humility, how to win and how to lose with grace — but that can only happen if you actually care about your team. Being from LA, I don’t have a natural NFL team to follow and while I tried to care about the Giants, there was none of that visceral connection you feel to a team that represents your city, even if nobody on that team actually came from the place you call home.
The Lakers are my team, as a fan. The Kings were Sacramento’s team, and more importantly, their only team.
If the Kings leave Sacramento, life will go on. The city can’t stop and it won’t stop. People will find new ways to spend their time; they will devote their love and energy to other pursuits. Life in general will continue much as it has been. And the memories of the Kings will someday fade away.
But Sacramento deserves better than that.
Just two quarters at Stanford and Winston Shi is already softening his natural Angelino hatred for all things NorCal. Next thing he’ll be cheering for the Clippers. Remind him of his SoCal roots at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.